Vitamin C vs Retinol

Which is Better for My Skin – Retinol or Vitamin C?

There are few ingredients that can claim to combat a multitude of skin issues, from acne and uneven skin tone to wrinkles and roughness. But Retinol and Vitamin C do that...and more! This powerhouse duo used together or on their own have significant benefits for all skin types – from oily, acne prone skin to dry mature skin.


But which one is better?  Should I use both?  How can I effectively incorporate them into my skincare regimen?  Let’s start with explaining both and what they actually do for your skin. 


What is retinol?


Retinol and retinoids are a vitamin A based topical treatment that is a proven and well researched anti-aging compound. Retinoids are stronger and available by prescription. Retinols are less concentrated and are available over the counter.


They both contain the active ingredient retinoic acid which promotes cell growth.  It also blocks the enzyme that breaks down collagen. 


Retinol first emerged on the skin care market as Retin-A in the 1970’s and was used as a treatment for acne. It was found to be effective at treating keratosis spots and hastening the rejuvenation of skin cells. Retinoids increase the production of collagen and stimulate blood vessels. This gives your skin give your skin a healthy glow.  


What is Vitamin C?


Vitamin C is an antioxidant. It protects against free radical damage and UV exposure. It also blocks the production of pigmentation which fades dark spots and evens your complexion. Free radicals are molecules that have an uneven number of electrons. This allows them to react with other molecules essentially robbing them of electrons and damaging them. This causes stress to the body, leading to a number of diseases such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes as well as aging. There are also free radicals in the environment from cigarette smoke, pollution and pesticides, just to name a few.


An antioxidant is a molecule that is capable of “donating” electrons to free radicals while still remaining stable. This in turn, stabilizes the free radicals. We get antioxidants from our diet. Some of the most powerful antioxidant foods are berries, citrus fruit, dark leafy vegetables and fish. And we can apply antioxidants topically to combat the effect of free radicals on our skin. Vitamin C is an excellent antioxidant when used orally and topically.


Vitamin C that is ingested is great for maintaining overall health but has very few benefits for your skin. So, in order to reap the antioxidant and collagen boosting perks, you must apply topically.


empyri pro aging hydrating toner with vitamin C


What are the Main Differences?


As I just said, Vitamin C is an antioxidant.  This means it helps to neutralize free radicals that can cause skin damage such as UV rays, pollution and smoking.  It also brightens and evens your skin tone and corrects hyperpigmentation and dark spots.


According to Dr. Justine Kluk, a board-certified dermatologist, “Vitamin C has both corrective and preventative benefits for the skin.  Two of the key hallmarks of skin aging are wrinkles and dark spots.  If you want to reduce the appearance of these, it makes sense to start using Vitamin C regularly from your 20’s onwards.”


Retinol is a derivative of vitamin A.  It works to prevents premature aging.  It also reduces sagginess in skin. 


Retinol can be used not only if you have a lot of aging skin issues and hyperpigmentation, but also on acne. 


Cell turnover in your skin takes about a month – retinol can increase this rejuvenation to about every two weeks


Vitamin C can be used daily to lighten dark spots and give you a smoother soft complexion.  It also counteracts the damaging effects of the sun. 


Both can be used on their own or together in your skincare routine. 


What are the Benefits of:



"Skin has its own natural renewal process, but as we age, skin renews itself less often," explains Dr. Cohen, a board-certified dermatologist at Rosedale Dermatology Centre in Toronto.  Retinol allows your skin to rejuvenate at a faster rate which produces more collagen.  It also works for acne prone skin, hastening the production of healthy skin cells.


Retinol is sold both over the counter in a 0.1% formulation (or less) and as a prescription in a 0.3% strength. Dryness and irritation are potential side effects of retinoids. So we recommend to start slowly, every other day, until you can assess your skin’s sensitivity level. Eventually work up to a nightly application. You will not start to notice the benefits for about 12 weeks and optimal results are apparent in 6-12 months of regular use. In order for retinol to be effective, it must be used continually.


Retinol can cause skin irritation.  Redness, itchiness, peeling or burning are all signs your formulation is too strong.  Give your skin a rest for a day or two, reduce the strength of the formulation or apply a layer of moisturizer before application.  This will provide a layer between your skin and the retinol, reducing the risk of sensitivity.  Once your skin has grown accustomed to the product, you can increase the strength. 


Over time your skin will build up a tolerance and you can increase the amount of active ingredient.  Eventually you will discover the concentration that works best for your skin type. 


Vitamin C


Most dermatologists agree that Vitamin C tops the list of best ingredients for skin.  Vitamin C is not naturally produced in the body.  We need to get it through outside sources such as citrus fruits or supplements.  It is vital in repairing tissues and encouraging healthy cell growth.  Dr. Patricia Wexler, a board-certified dermatologist states that Vitamin C, “is essential for firm, youthful skin.” 


Just as impressive are the benefits for acne prone skin. The anti-inflammatory properties in Vitamin C reduces redness and swelling. At the same time vitamin C reduces hyperpigmentation, promotes the production of collagen, and heals acne scars.


Vitamin C breaks down when exposed to air and/or light so proper storage is important.  All Vitamin C based products should be kept in an opaque container away from heat and light. 


Vitamin C truly is an MVP (Most Valuable Product) when it comes to skin care but with any product, it must be used correctly.  It’s best to start out with a 10% concentration while you assess your skin’s sensitivity then gradually work up to 15-20%.  At empyri we give you, the consumer, the ability to control the amount of pure L-absorbic acid you add to our toner.  Our vitamin C sachets and mixing bottle are sealed and dark to allow no light to start the oxidation process.  This way you can be confident that the ingredients are always fresh and customized for your individual skin care needs. 


So, we’ve determined that Retinol and Vitamin C are scientifically proven skin care champions. But is one better than the other for specific skin concerns? 

Which is Better For:


 Skin Concern


Vitamin C

Wrinkles Reduces fine lines and wrinkles Reduces fine lines and wrinkles
Dark Circles Evens skin tone Lightens dark spots and hyperpigmentation
Acne Heals cystic acne Kills bacteria that causes acne and reduces redness and inflammation from breakouts
Acne scars Lightens acne scars Lightens acne scars
Eyes Safe for around the eye; not to be used on the eyelid Safe for around the eye; not to be used on the eyelid
Signs of aging Both ingredients are considered great for anti-aging
Pigmentation Reduces the appearance of hyperpigmentation Recommended treatment for lightening skin tone and hyperpigmentation 
The Sun Increases sensitivity to UV radiation (apply in the PM) Protects against the harmful effects of UV rays (apply in the AM)
Blackheads Helps prevent the blockage of skin follicles Reduces the appearance of blackheads by stopping sedum oxidation (dark colour of blackheads)
Collagen Synthesis Promotes cell turnover Essential to your body's collagen synthesis and absorption of nutrients
Skin Irritation Very strong; can irritate sensitive skin Moderately strong; concentration can be modified to be less irritating 

Final Verdict


Both retinol and Vitamin C are two of the hottest skin care ingredients that scientifically live up to their hype.  They are both effective at improving the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, dark spots and pigmentation.  They’re recommended treatments for acne, dullness and rough skin texture.  Vitamin C also protects against the damaging effects of UV rays (although it is not a sunscreen) and everyday pollutants. 


These two ingredients can be used individually or together as part of a comprehensive skincare routine.  You just need to use them correctly to avoid skin irritations and ensure effectiveness. 


At empyri, we love that Vitamin C is less irritating to the skin than retinol. And since our formula allows you to customize the concentration, it works for all skin types. Adding a sachet of our pure L-absorbic acid to our skin toner every two weeks ensures that the ingredients are always at peak potency and freshness. Learn more here. 



How should you use retinol and vitamin C?


Both ingredients are good additions to your skincare routine, but not at the same time. Use vitamin C should in the morning to neutralize free radicals (UV rays, pollution etc). Since retinol can increase your skin’s sensitivity to the sun, use it in the evening. Using them at the same time can reduce their effectiveness and cause skin irritation. 

Can I use vitamin C instead of retinol?


Vitamin C and retinol are both affective at reducing the signs of aging and acne.  If you have sensitive skin you may opt to use just Vitamin C since it causes less skin irritation than retinol.


When shouldn’t I use Vitamin C and retinol?


As I said earlier, retinol can increase your skin’s sensitivity to the sun so it shouldn’t be applied in the morning.  Vitamin C is safe to use morning and evening.  Retinol is also not recommended for use during pregnancy or for sensitive skin.  And as with any new skin care ingredient, always do a patch test to check for allergic reactions. 


You Are Loved. 



Jennifer Grant with Hemp Roots


Author Bio: Jennifer is the president and founder of empyri.  Jennifer’s passion for formulation and product development was set ablaze in 2019, when she incorporated the healing power of cannabis roots into her long-standing three-step skin care system. Armed with scientific evidence on the actives in cannabis roots and seeds, a clean and conscious brand was born. Using her masters degree in bio-chemical engineering, Jennifer is forging a path to ...READ FULL BIO